Kathmandu. November 2 (Nepali Times): Indian President Pranab Mukherjee arrived in Kathmandu on Wednesday for a three-day visit, but what is supposed to be a fence-mending exercise seems to have reopened wounds inflicted by last year’s crippling border blockade.
The visit triggered an avalanche of anti-Indian posts that reminded the Indian guest about his country’s first involvement in the blockade that crippled the economy, even as the pro-Indian Dahal government declared Wednesday a holiday to welcome the Indian President.
Photos of over-crowded buses, empty gas cylinders and serpentine queues outside petrol pumps from last year were posted online juxtaposed with Mukherjee’s motorcade. The five-month blockade was imposed by New Delhi to pressure Kathmandu to amend Nepal’s new Constitution.
As President Bidya Bhandari welcomed Mukherjee at Tribhuvan International Airport, Nepalis on social networking sites demanded an apology from India for choking off the supply of fuel, medicines and other essential commodities. The hashtag #PranabDaSaySorry trended on Twitter.
But the Twitterati also slammed Nepal’s political leadership for kowtowing to India by declaring a public holiday on Mukherjee’s visit with a hashtag in Devanagari script #लम्पसारवाद.
Police have not allowed commuters to drive or walk along the roads that Mukherjee’s carcade will be taking during the three-day visit and Kathmandu commuters are furious. The streets in core Kathmandu wore a deserted look, and people said it was like a curfew.
Journalist Tirtha Koirala posted on Twitter a picture of the deserted Baneswor road, and asked: “Are people not supposed to stand by the road with flowers and the national flags of the two countries in their hands to welcome Indian President? Is it an honour or insult to you, honourable President?”
Writer Khagendra Sangroula tweeted in Nepali to lambast the way the government welcomed Mukherjee: “It is a total shutdown by the government, as if in a military dictatorship. I will be reading Pablo Neruda’s poems about dictatorship.”
Many compared the welcome to be of the kind more familiar in the streets of Pyongyang.
Ananta Koirala also tweeted in Nepali: “We have not forgotten the blockade, nor will we ever forget your inhumane behavior”.
Others even used the hashtag #IndianPresidentNotWelcome, saying they will not welcome any Indian dignitary unless India apologises for imposing a blockade against Nepal that was just recovering from a 7.8 magnitude earthquake last year.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had sent a rescue team to Kathmandu hours after the earthquake struck central Nepal. But the way the Indian media covered the disaster was also ridiculed in Nepal and the hashtag #GoHomeIndianMedia drew a lot of attention.
But Modi was still considered a hero. In 2014, he had visited Nepal – the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 17 years, and delivered a dramatic speech in Nepal’s Parliament that caught the imagination of the Nepalis. But he squandered the goodwill that he earned when he sent his special envoy S Jaishankar to stop Nepal from promulgating its new constitution.
The real disaster in the Kathmandu-New Delhi ties came when the Modi government refused to welcome Nepal’s constitution, and imposed a blockade for five months.
This time last year, Nepalis were struggling to buy petrol, gas and other essentials. They celebrated their biggest festivals –Dasain and Tihar – without cooking gas. This year, the next day after Tihar, Mukherjee arrived with a mission to stop Kathmandu from cosying up with Beijing, and strengthen the Nepal-India ties that are still at the lowest point.
But it seems last year’s blockade is still haunting Nepal-India friendship, and Mukherjee’s visit has been clouded by its memory.
Mukherjee is in Nepal for a three-day fence-mending visit, .the first from the giant neighbor in two decades.
The Nepal government had declared a public holiday to welcome Mukherjee, who will also be visiting Janakpur and Pokhara after meeting Nepal’s President Bidya Bhandari, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and other top political leaders in Kathmandu.
This is the first time an Indian President is visiting Nepal in the last 18 years, the last was by President KR Narayanan’s in 1998. Indian Presidents APJ Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil visited many countries, but never visited Nepal during two decades during which the Himalayan republic suffered brutal internal strife and a prolonged political transition.
Mukherjee’s visit has been viewed as the two countries seeking a new beginning to restore bilateral ties, which soured after India expressed its unhappiness with a new constitution promulgated last year by imposing a crippling five-month border blockade to pressure Kathmandu to amend the charter. The blockade stopped the import of petroleum, essential commodities and even medicines, devastating the economy and delaying an already slow post-earthquake delivery of relief supplies.
In May, then Prime Minister KP Oli abruptly cancelled President Bhandari’s India visit, ostensibly concluding that New Delhi had a role in a coup against his government. Oli succeeded in foiling the attempted regime change, but was ousted two months later when the Maoists pulled out and formed a new coalition with the NC.
After Dahal became Prime Minister in August, President Bhandari invited Mukherjee in what was seen by many as a move to maintain balance between New Delhi and Beijing. Oli had invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to Kathmandu, but after Dahal became Prime Minister, Xi’s visit became uncertain and Kathmandu geared up for Mukherjee’s visit.
In an interview with the National News Agency, Foreign Affairs Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat expressed his hope that Mukherjee’s visit would help remove bitterness in the Kathmandu-New Delhi ties, and usher in a new era of friendship between the two countries. “This is a goodwill visit, and it will create the foundation of mutual respect between the two countries,” he said.
On Tuesday, Kathmandu’s streets were relatively less busy because of Bhai Tika – the last day of the five-day Tihar festival. But traffic police had blocked major roads in core Kathmandu in a rehearsal to manage Kathmandu’s traffic during Mukherjee’s stay.
DSP Vanendra Pakhrin of Metropolitan Traffic Police Division, Kathmandu has urged commuters to avoid using the city’s main roads which will be partially blocked to ensure Mukherjee’s smooth carcade in Kathmandu. Flights to and from Kathmandu are expected to be affected on Wednesday morning and Friday because the airport will be closed to all air traffic as Mukherjee flies in from Delhi, gets to Janakpur and Pokhara and flies back on Friday.
The Nepal government’s decision this week to make Wednesday a national holiday to honor Mukherjee’s arrival has met with widespread criticism and ridicule. Many commentators have pointed out that instead of asking India to apologise for last year’s blockade, it is kowtowing to New Delhi
Wary of negative comments about Mukherjee’s visit, Foreign Minister Mahat said: “We are known all over the world for our hospitality, and we must demonstrate it. It is a matter of pride to welcome such a high-profile dignitary, and we must not make insensitive and negative comments about his visit on social media.”